Remembering a Remarkable Jewish Mother

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A documentary feature making the art house rounds this summer with the jolly title of Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg is a fascinating and revealing look at the story of Gertrude Berg. She was the star, writer, and producer of an enormously popular radio and television series in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, which was also a movie and Broadway play. In retrospect, this warm-hearted portrayal of a New York Jewish family without reference to anti-Semitism, ethnic insecurity, or the Holocaust seems amazing, all the more so because the program eventually was undermined by a different scourge, the anti-Communist fervor of the post World War II era.

The film is the work of Aviva Kempner who made an award-winning movie some years ago called The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the great Jewish baseball player of the 1930s and 1940s and his confrontation with anti-Semitism in sports. She chose Berg as a subject, Kempner says, because for all her accomplishments, she has been largely forgotten, which is one of the reasons her story makes so deep an impression. Berg died in 1966 (at age 66) and the series, The Goldbergs, never went into syndication (there is talk of a boxed set next spring). Berg defied the odds of her time as a creator and businesswoman, and showed extraordinary courage in the face of the McCarthyist onslaught of the early 1950s about which I'll talk more in a moment.

The Goldbergs was a top-rated situation comedy for CBS in the earliest television years. Berg was the first recipient of an Emmy for lead actress in a series. As Molly Goldberg, she presided over a household consisting of husband, Jake, two teenage children, Rosalie and Sammy, and "Uncle David," who like Molly herself was a dispenser of wry wisdom with just enough malapropisms to be funny. The show always began with Molly leaning out of Bronx tenement window, urging viewers to buy Sanka (the sponsor in its peak years) and gossiping with the neighbors, all clearly Jewish. Nothing about the characters or the situations reflected any self-consciousness about their identity. Clips from the program in the film make no mention of the fact that this was barely five years after the full revelation of Hitler's "Final Solution" and in the embattled, inspiring early years of Israel. In one episode, a letter is received from relatives in Europe with the anodyne observation that they hadn't been heard from since before the war.

If the program or Berg herself as a writer and actor ever displayed awareness of the anomalies of being a Jew at that time, the documentary makes no mention of it. There are extended excerpts from an Edward R. Murrow interview with Berg on his Person-to-Person program, and we see her in her luxurious Park Avenue duplex, accompanied by her husband, looking elegant and well spoken, a doyenne who, by donning an apron on her ample bodice and adding a lilt of Yiddish inflection, became the perfect Jewish mother. (She had six grandchildren when she died.) Berg wrote thousands of scripts for the radio show and the television series, which spent nearly five years on the air, ending in 1955. Along with her work on the feature and Broadway show, she was clearly a formidable dealmaker able to persuade, among others, William Paley (the founder and chairman of CBS and a largely closeted Jew) that Americans would take to this Jewish household and sensibility. This is also the period in which the all-Black Amos and Andy show was also a national hit. Looking back, that program was so egregiously stereotypical and racist that in the age of Obama (let alone in the summer of Henry Louis Gates and racial profiling), it is acutely embarrassing. The Goldbergs, while dated, feels affectionate, an idealized version of family rhythms, uncluttered by grittier matters.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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